DES MOINES — Peggy Huppert, a longtime activist for children’s mental health reform in Iowa, said Monday she hopes the state is on the road toward establishing meaningful services, programs and resources to help families deal with challenges facing vulnerable young people.
“Certainly there has been progress over the years,” said Huppert, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “but the fact is there is still no system, no plan, no accountability and little funding.
“It is my hope and belief that a year from now we will be able to stand before you and say that has changed.”
The cause for Huppert’s cautious optimism Monday was an executive order signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds creating a Children’s Mental Health Board. Ernst said this would be the first of many steps to establish a children’s mental health system in Iowa.
Reynolds signed comprehensive, bipartisan mental health reform legislation into law last month designed to build on the state’s existing regional mental health system and provide all Iowans with access to the full array of mental health care they need, no matter where they live.
However, Reynolds said the state is in the process of identifying gaps in Iowa’s mental health network, and “the lack of a coordinated children’s mental health system is a significant gap.”
The governor said the new state board she created will take a comprehensive look at what resources are in place. Moreover, it will develop a strategic plan with specific recommendations to implement a children’s mental health system that will lay the foundation to provide help to address unmet needs.
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“Initially the board will develop and recommend specific steps to build an integrated, well-coordinated and sustainable children’s mental health system,” Reynolds told a news conference in her formal office where she signed the executive order — the second since she became governor last May.
She is asking the group to make its recommendations by the end of the year.
Huppert, the parent of two children who struggle with mental illnesses, said current services for children diagnosed with mental illness or who are suicidal are woefully inadequate in Iowa.
“Ever since the reorganization of adult mental health services in Iowa six years ago, what to do about the kids has been on the table,” Huppert said.
Looking long term, the governor said the board will serve as the state board, providing oversight and technical assistance to the entire children’s mental health system.
“Creating a children’s mental health system from scratch is complex, and it will not happen overnight,” said acting Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg.
He pledged the administration “won’t stop working to improve our mental health system until we get it right.”
Mary Neubauer, a Clive woman who began lobbying for improvements in Iowa’s mental health care system seven months ago, shortly after her 18-year-old son, Sergei, took his own life, called the executive order a “real acknowledgment that we, as a state, need to do better, that these issues absolutely matter and we are prepared to do the hard work to get there.”
Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, one of a number of legislators involved with a working group looking at children’s mental health issues for more than two years, applauded the effort as “historic.” But she expressed disappointment that working group members were better recognized for their groundbreaking work in Monday’s announcement.
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“I was very surprised she didn’t have any working group members there,” said Mathis, who called the executive order a “positive step” that builds on about $300,000 in collaborative efforts she noted are already built into the state budget.
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